This is a list of comics or which I have enjoyed and would recommend. You may have a different list – in fact, you may disagree with this list altogether. But these are the ones that have kicked me in the guts until I agreed with them that THIS REALLY HAPPENED IN SOME UNIVERSE, SOMEWHERE! And that, for me, is the litmus test of a really good story.
This list is going to be added to over the life of the site. The comics listed are in no particular order other than them popping into my brain as I type:
Batman: Year One
Writer – Frank Miller; Penciller and inker – David Mazzucchelli; Colorist – Richmond Lewis; Letterer – Todd Klein; publication year 1986.
There has never been and never shall be again a ‘Batman begins his career’ story as good as this. It is so utterly, utterly brilliant that Batman must have risen up from the depths and visited Miller’s apartment to relate the tale direct to him. This is Batman as Travis Bickle, a nightmare 70s-New York-style landscape of corruption and vice that two men – one wearing a cape and cowl, the other carrying a police badge – decide to take on, separately-but-together. And it is the telling of Gordon and Wayne as a dynamic duo that lends this story its brilliance. It gives the story humanity through a dawning friendship that is only just beginning to peek over Gotham’s horizon by the story’s end. Finally – it has some set pieces of young Batman doing his thing with props and gadgets that makes me jump up-and-down with excitement, no matter how many times I read it.
Superman: Red Son
Writer – Mark Millar; Pencillers – Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett; Inkers – Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong; Colorist – Paul Mounts; Letterer – Ken Lopez; Year of publication – 2003.
The blurb on the front of the book sums up this story’s basis succinctly: ‘The great American icon…re-imagined as a Soviet hero!’ Yes. Superman crash landed in Russia – not the United States. And with his Siegel and Schuster design, Superman looks all too-comfortable in the socialist realist landscape. It works. Really. For reasons I will go into at a later date because this work deserves an essay. But for now, take it from me that Millar knows his history and his ideologies.
But the best thing – the absolute greatest thing of all – is the team’s take on Batman: childhood victim of the Gulag. And never has a ragged, grinning, fur-hatted Dark Knight made more sense. Read it. You must.
Batman: The Long Halloween
Writer – Jeph Loeb; Artist – Tim Sale; Colorist – Gregory Wright; Letterer – Richard Starkings and Comicraft; year of publication 1996.
Don’t let the title fool you – this isn’t about Batman at all. Bruce is just a bit-player here. If I sound disappointed about that, I’m not. This is other people’s chance to shine which gives us chance to appreciate the part they play in the awfulness that is ‘Gotham City’.
This comic book is the HBO adaptation of Batman, a series detailing a year in a life of Crime, where most of Batman’s freakish adversaries get a guest appearance. However, its the organized crime families which play a recurring role. That’s sometimes what I like best – normal, violent crime, carried out by those who expect such crime to pay and indeed, make it pay them handsomely, time-and-time again. Because, I rather fancy that battling gangsters is the bread-and-butter of Bruce’s night shift. Therefore, this feels real. Therefore, I like it.
“Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson”, in Batman #20, December-January 1944
Writer – Bill Finger; Penciller – Bob Kane; Inker: Jerry Robinson; Letter: George Roussos.
‘The Wayne home is a happy home, for in it lives a happy trio!’
Bet that’s shocked you, hasn’t it? Never thought you’d read those words written about Batman. And don’t even think about arguing with the opening to this tale because it is written by the man who knew Batman best of all – his co-creator Bill Finger. So we have to listen to this because it really happened.
This is an important story because it is about how much Dick Grayson loves his adopted big-brother, Bruce Wayne. But crucially it also tells us how much Bruce loves his little brother back. The Wayne home is a happy home because Bruce has managed to make a family again, a family dedicated to eradicating crime in Gotham – Bruce, Dick and Alfred. But that is all taken away from him when someone purporting to be from Dick’s family returns to claim Bruce’s young ward. And boy! – does that kid cry. So does Alfred. We never see Bruce’s tears, but he is pictured with shadows covering his face, and tiny lettering as he waves farewell to his kid brother. Frankly – if you are not biting down on your lip to force back your own tears, then you have rocks for a heart.
This story is a lesson to all of us that Batman is hopeless without his ‘good soldier’. It is one of my all-time favorites. Find it if you can.
“The Batman Nobody Knows”, in Batman #250, July 1973.
Writer – Frank Robbins; Artist – Dick Giordano
This is a short story, but is one of the all-time greats. I love its title because it speaks to all of us. We all do what the children in this story do – we look at Batman and think we know all about him. And the things we know about him, no other Batfan does because he is our own – special, private. Sure – you might share someone’s opinion on the Caped Crusader, but no two Batmen are alike. We mould him in our own image, each of us seeing in him and taking from him what we need, what we want.
In this story, Bruce does his ‘pillar of the community’ thing by taking three disadvantaged kids on a camping trip in the woods. It is night-time, and one of my favorite things about it is that you kind of assume that – maybe, just once – Bruce took the night off from being Batman to stay with them. Well, that’s what I like to think.
Kids being kids, they tell stories round the campfire, and their topic of choice is sightings of The Batman; speculation about who he is and what he looks like. And not one of these kids has the same story. Each reflects the child’s personality, interests and backgrounds and it is lovely.
I shan’t spoil it by telling you what their stories are or how it ends (which is hilarious). But the story also serves as a timely reminder of something that gets a bit lost nowadays: Batman really is for kids. The seeds of his origin were planted in an eight year-old child’s body and he exists to prevent other children from his orphan’s fate. Regardless of how grumpy he is, Batman is a hero. He scares criminals (the superstitious and cowardly lot) because they have something to hide. He doesn’t scare children because they are innocent. When they see Batman, they run to him. This is because he is one of them, still, deep-down. Bruce is forever eight years of age, which we have to be grateful for.
“The Joker’s Comedy of Errors” and “Batman II and Robin, Junior!” in Batman #66, August to September, 1951
This issue is quite famous across the internet – or should I say, notorious – for the first story cited. This is because it teaches us that “the past is a different country, they do things differently there” to take a quote from a Britsh novel – The Go-Between..
“Joker’s Comedy” relates to Joker trying to make Batman and Robin look foolish in public by pulling a series of stunts designed to make them look like idiots. But the term that is used for this is ‘boner’. Yes – you read that right. In 1951 slang, boner did not mean what is does today, and instead is used to describe a major error that makes the news. As a consequence, we get to read dialogue such as:
“I’ll show them! I’ll show them how many boners the Joker can make!” (Joker)
“See this picture? It shows a big boner of modern vintage!” (Joker again.)
“What does he mean, Bruce? How can he force you into a boner?” (Dick Grayson)
“Let’s continue our study of the great boners of all time…” (Bruce Wayne)
Get the picture? Of course, this makes for hilarious reading now and is the reason why you can usually find it online. Also – it does make me wonder when modern usage of the term began and whether there is a sneaky joke behind it all…Perhaps another research piece?
However, masked by all these great, big boners is the real gem inside this issue – the second story. “Batman II” is the kind of story best told by superheroes. In fact, perhaps only men and boys like Batman and Robin can relate this tale because only they live in such a way that creates the story to begin with.
Ever thought about the emotional toll that the responsibility of being Robin brings? Where a wrong move could mean death to an innocent victim, to yourself, to your partner? And all that stress being placed on such young shoulders – what kind of mental damage could that do to a boy?
Well – that is what this story is about. On face value, it seems like a 1950s lesson in the consequences of disobedience for young boys, but it goes much deeper than that. Dick imagines a far-flung future where his tendency to not follow instructions given to him by adults – i.e. Batman – has consequences for Dick and Dick’s future son. Dick’s waywardness is inherited by his boy and it results in tragedy.
This is jaw-droppingly significant. Those who see the DC Silver Age as childish or simple often don’t read into the stories enough. This is Dick Grayson suffering from acute levels of anxiety for acting as all kids do – a bit naughty and a dismissive of ‘the olds’. Dick isn’t allowed to be like us, the readers who get to say, ‘Later dad! I’m reading Batman!’ when our parents ask us to take out the trash. For Batman and Robin, ‘Later!’ means ‘Dead.’
Gotham Central, Feb 2003 to April 2006.
Writer: Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker; Art: Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano, Greg Scott, Brian Hurtt, Jason Alexander, Kano, Steve Lieber.
Whilst it is true that I love Batman as a brother and would happily take a bullet for him, my love is true and is therefore not a mere infatuation. I recognize the man’s shortcomings – of which there are plenty. So do Rucka and Brubaker and as Gotham Central is one of his forums for exploring the ways in which Batman screws people over, I like it a lot. Basically, Gotham Central’s purpose is to take Batman to task for being a bit of an idiot.
These stories are about the Gotham police officers within the Major Crimes Unit, a special team put together originally by Commissioner Gordon. Ostensibly, MCU deals with ‘The Freaks’ – the likes of Joker, Dent and all the other crazies. They are the ones who get to turn on the bat signal. Trouble is, MCU resents Batman. He pushes them aside, gets to act in ways they cannot. It erodes their self-respect. So Gotham Central explores how these officers work out their Bat-demons. The focus is on MCU and how they cope with their everyday work. And It isn’t pretty. Often, it is absolutely heart-breaking. But a far greater an enemy than Two-Face or even Batman are their own kind – the corrupt police officers of Gotham PD.
Please read it. It is a vital piece of work, the most real thing I’ve ever picked up in Batman world.